A 10-foot-tall giant that was petrified in the biblical flood. A mountain excavation that turned up astonishingly detailed fossils of ancient worms and amphibians alongside artifacts that bore the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Such hoaxes seem preposterous today, but in their time, they made major impacts on society. As a paleontologist who has examined fossils throughout the world, I have come across my fair share of fakes over the years. Most of them were small-time forgeries, such as a fossilized bird with false feathers painted on it and a headless aquatic reptile with the skull of another individual grafted on to make the skeleton complete. Yet, the grander hoaxes of earlier days always fascinated me. For many years, I dreamed of assembling the greatest natural history forgeries for an exhibition. The dream became a reality with Monsters and Mermaids: Unraveling Natural History’s Greatest Hoaxes, an exhibition that is on view through February 11, 2024, at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., where I serve as curator. This article highlights five remarkable artifacts that are included in the exhibition.
To understand how these forgeries succeeded, we must explore the psychology of deception. Behind each great hoax, there stands a hoaxer. Some sought fame or academic recognition, others sought profit or revenge, and a few sought only amusement. Untangling the motivations of the hoaxers is fascinating, but the other side of the equation is equally compelling: the willingness of the audience to believe. A hoax fails if it is punctured by skepticism. The most successful hoaxers give their targets exactly what these individuals most desire, whether it is proof that one’s religious or scientific beliefs are correct or a springboard to fame and fortune.
Exploring the Monsters and Mermaids exhibition, it is easy to smirk at some of the more clumsily made artifacts and the gullibility of those who fell for them. Before we judge the deceived too harshly, however, we should recognize that technologies such as carbon dating and DNA testing were unimaginable when many classic hoaxes were perpetrated. We should also look in the mirror. We live in the age of modern disinformation, where technology has become a double-edged sword. Encyclopedias of information sit in the palm of our hand thanks to smartphones, but through that same portal, conspiratorial lies spread almost instantaneously, amplified by engagement algorithms. In the old days a real person had to strap on giant carved feet to become Bigfoot. Today someone can generate a convincing video of the world’s favorite cryptid species with little more than an artificial intelligence prompt. Studying the potential motivations of hoaxers and believers is worth the investment—it just may save us from the next big deception.
Beringer’s Lying Stones
Beringer’s Lying Stones, or Lügensteine in German, are among the oldest surviving natural history forgeries. In 1725 Johann Bartholomeus Adam Beringer, a professor at the University of Würzburg, was collecting and studying fossils from Mount Eibelstadt in present-day Bavaria. Beringer had hired local teenagers to expand his operations. On May 31, 1725, Beringer’s young assistants brought him three stones that appeared to preserve unique types of fossils. Two of the stones displayed wormlike creatures, and the third had a sunlike shape. All were exposed in bas-relief. In time, more enticing stones surfaced. Some preserved incredible details: spiders sitting on webs, birds brooding eggs and even two frogs caught in the act of mating. Then the situation became truly outlandish. Stones emerged depicting stars, the moon, and letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Dismissing any misgivings, Beringer rushed headlong into writing his treatise Lithographiae Wirceburgensis. It stands as a masterpiece of bloviation.
By way of introduction, Beringer wrote, “Behold these tablets, which I was inspired to edit, not only by my tireless zeal for public service…, but by my strong filial love of Franconia, to which, from these figured fruits of this previously obscure mountain, no less glory will accrue than from the delicious wines of its vine-covered hills.” As he composed the volume he hoped would earn him a place in the pantheon of great scholars, rumors circulated that his “fossils” were unsophisticated carvings. Beringer refused to accept this possibility, declaring in his book that a colleague “…has threatened to write a small treatise exposing my stones as supposititious… Thus does this man, virtually unknown among men of letters, still but a novice in the science, make a bid for the dawn of his fame in a shameful calumny and imposture!”
In the end, the truth was revealed at a formal hearing: Würzburg geology professor J. Ignatz Roderick and librarian Johann Georg von Eckhart had orchestrated the carving of the stones and paid one of Beringer’s young assistants to scatter them around Mount Eibelstadt. By then it was too late. Lithographiae Wirceburgensis was published—for which all connoisseurs of windbags getting their comeuppance should be forever thankful. The hoax worked because it offered the self-aggrandizing Beringer something irresistible—remarkable fossils that he saw as his ticket to scientific renown.
The Cardiff Giant
George Hull had a résumé that would impress any swindler. He had dabbled in horse trading, cheating at cards and tobacco sales. The last of these occupations may seem honest enough, except that Hull occasionally burned down his own tobacco barns and cigar shops for insurance money! In 1869, Hull would secure his place in the hoaxer hall of fame by pulling off what is widely known as “America’s greatest hoax”: the Cardiff Giant.
After an argument with a preacher over the literal truth of the Bible, Hull took inspiration for his grandest scheme from Genesis 6:4, which states, “There were giants in the earth in those days.” He purchased an enormous slab of gypsum in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and hired sculptors Henry Salle and Fred Mohrmann to carve it into a 10-foot-tall giant. Hull took his creation on a 1,000-mile journey by rail and wagon to his cousin “Stub” Newell’s farm in the hamlet of Cardiff, N.Y. In the dead of night, Hull and his associates dug a pit and buried the giant. There it lay for nearly a year until Newell hired two men to dig a well. On October 16, 1869, the unsuspecting laborers uncovered the giant. As word spread, neighbors began congregating, followed by visitors from nearby towns. Newell erected a tent and started charging visitors 50 cents to enter. Soon a consortium of entrepreneurs purchased shares in the giant and transported it to Syracuse, N.Y., Albany, N.Y., and New York City in search of bigger audiences.
As the Cardiff Giant rose in popularity, it attracted the attention of showman P. T. Barnum. He offered the consortium the staggering sum of $50,000 (roughly $1 million, adjusted for inflation) for a quarter stake but was rebuffed. Never one to take no for an answer, Barnum purchased a replica of the giant from sculptor Carl Franz Otto and paraded it down Broadway in Manhattan, with 12 horses pulling and 100 men marching alongside. Thanks to Barnum’s flair, the imposter giant brought in thousands of paying visitors, while the “authentic” Cardiff Giant, exhibited a mere two blocks away, attracted only a trickle of guests. Soon even more giants began making the rounds, causing already skeptical audiences to lose interest.
The forlorn colossus resurfaced occasionally at state fairs and was bought and sold several times. At some point along the way, the giant broke in two at the knees. In 1947 the Cardiff Giant found a permanent home close to the site of its original exhumation at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. I was honored when the museum accepted our proposal to borrow the Cardiff Giant for Monsters and Mermaids, which marks its first foray outside of Cooperstown in more than 75 years. Bringing America’s greatest hoax to the Bruce Museum was a real endeavor because the titan weighs 2,990 pounds. We held our breath as the hoist lifted the giant out of its crate and breathed a sigh of relief as it descended gently onto a reinforced wheeled platform. The Cardiff Giant now lies in state at the center of the Bruce gallery, a grand monument to the history of hoaxes.
The Kensington Runestone
In the late 1800s many archeologists were no better than looters, pillaging objects from burial sites to put in personal collections or to sell. It was a setting ripe for hoaxes, many of which revolved around fabricating evidence for pre-Columbian European or Middle Eastern exploration of North America. The Kensington Runestone is an interesting variation on this theme. In 1898, Swedish immigrant Olof Öhman claimed to have unearthed a massive stone slab while clearing trees on his farmstead in Minnesota. The tablet was inscribed with runes recording a massacre of Scandinavian explorers deep in North America—more than a century before Columbus set sail. The runes read:
“We are 8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland through the West. We had camp by a lake with 2 skerries one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out and fished one day. After we came home we found 10 of our men red with blood and dead. AVM [Ave Virgo Maria] save us from evil. We have 10 of our party by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.”
This artifact always amused me. Imagine returning from fishing and finding a third of your party massacred. My own instinct would be to flee to the ship, not to whip out a chisel and laboriously carve a message into a giant stone tablet. Moreover, a 200-pound stone doesn’t seem like it would have been high on the list of essential supplies for a scouting expedition.
Although the Kensington Runestone continues to be presented as genuine in dubious books and fringe websites, there are numerous signs of forgery. Several of its runes are either ancient forms that had been discarded by the 14th century or more modern ones that had not yet come into use. The pristine surface of the stone is another red flag, as 536 years of seasonal freezing and thawing in the Minnesota soil from which the artifact was supposedly unearthed would have weathered it severely.
Öhman himself is widely considered to have been the hoaxer, because no one else is likely to have wedged the runestone under a tree on his farm without his knowledge. Öhman never profited financially from the runestone, so his motivation is more speculative. Some historians believe he hoped to establish an ethnic link to North America. In the late 1800s Swedish immigrants were resented by many established Midwestern communities as latecomers. This dynamic would be turned on its head if Scandinavians were found to be the first Westerners to explore Minnesota, as the Kensington Runestone purported to prove.
The Toad in the Hole, a Precursor to Piltdown Man
Piltdown Man is one of the most consequential scientific hoaxes of all time, having misled anthropologists for decades. English solicitor and amateur antiquarian Charles Dawson hoped that this fossil forgery would see him inducted into the Royal Society. Piltdown Man was Dawson’s masterwork, but he pulled off a string of lesser-known hoaxes in the years leading up to it. One of his earlier hoaxes was the Toad in the Hole. In April 1901 Dawson unveiled a “mummified” toad, which he claimed was discovered when quarriers broke open a flint nodule. Dawson wrote a paper speculating that the toad had crawled through a tiny opening in the nodule and then grew too large to exit, surviving for years by capturing insects that wandered too close to the aperture. The Illustrated London News carried the story, adding to Dawson’s renown as the “Wizard of Sussex,” a moniker recognizing his sensational discoveries. Dawson used the purported quarriers as an alibi. If anyone suspected fraud, he could at worst be criticized for being hoodwinked by the workers, who may never have actually existed.
The Toad in the Hole is a wonderful historical object, akin to an early work by a great painter (or painting forger). The recipe is straightforward: stuff a desiccated toad into a potato-sized rock and add a story. Simple as the toad is, my colleagues and I expended quite a bit of effort to bring it to the Bruce Museum for our Monsters and Mermaids exhibit. Because the nodule contains an authentic amphibian, we had to identify it to the species level to arrange proper permissions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to import it. We obtained and circulated photographs of the withered and musty-looking creature, using its toe proportions, skin texture and the development of its parotid glands to confirm its identity as the common toad Bufo bufo.
The toad sits next to a replica of Piltdown Man in the exhibition. Comparing the two shows how far Dawson’s forging skills and ambition had advanced in the decade after he pulled off the toad hoax. Dawson combined a human skull and a modern orangutan jawbone to create Piltdown Man, which he presented to the world as the fossilized remains of a human ancestor. He took many precautions to cover his tracks. The human remains used in the hoax came from a Medieval-era individual who had a pathological condition that caused unusual thickening of the skull bones. Dawson broke off parts of the orangutan mandible that would reveal a poor fit with the human skull, and reshaped the teeth with a metal file. He stained the bones with chemicals to make them look fossilized and scattered stone tools and bones of extinct animals around the site to establish an ancient age.
Piltdown Man escaped detection for so long because it gave British anthropologists exactly what they yearned for: the perfect missing link in their preferred scenario for human evolution. It didn’t hurt that the fossil was from England, silencing scholars from continental Europe who derided the scant English fossil record of human ancestors. British Museum curator Arthur Smith Woodward, whom Dawson enlisted to formally present the alleged fossil to the scientific community, benefited tremendously from the forgery, earning Knighthood in no small part for his work on Piltdown Man. Dawson himself was not so lucky. He died in 1916 without ever making it into the Royal Society.
No exhibition on hoaxes would be complete without Bigfoot. As a curator, my philosophy is that people visit museums to see “the real thing.” Graphics and videos are all well and good, but the actual objects are the heart of the most successful exhibitions. With this in mind, I set out to find the holy grail of hoaxes: Bigfoot’s feet.
The legend of Bigfoot began when massive footprints started appearing along the Bluff Creek timber access road in northern California in the late summer of 1958. Bulldozer operator Jerry Crew made a plaster cast of one of the footprints and showed it to reporters. On October 6 Humboldt Times reporter Andrew Genzoli wrote an article that featured a photograph of the cast. In it, he coined the now famous name Bigfoot. Soon Bigfoot was being sighted all over the Northwest.
Ray Wallace, an inveterate prankster, created the original tracks by stamping carved wooden feet into the ground. Wallace was having fun while also trying to discourage vandals from messing around with his logging equipment at night. Little did he know that as he pressed the feet into the ground, he was creating a piece of Americana. I was fortunate to connect with Ray Wallace’s son Michael and hear about Ray’s love of the great outdoors, family and practical jokes. I shared a few stories of my own dad’s hijinks as well, although none of them managed to spawn a legendary cryptid. Michael Wallace inherited the feet when his father passed in 2002 and generously loaned them for Monsters and Mermaids. The feet are carved from alderwood, with a leather strap for the top of the foot and a band of rubber to hold them on the back of the leg. As Michael Wallace put it, the feet may be a part of history to the public, but to him, they are a part of his dad.
Of the great hoaxers of history, Ray Wallace was perhaps the purest with his craft. He sought no accolades or money, only amusement. Did he also give his audience just what they wanted? I would argue yes. The chill of imagining some powerful beast, a species related to humans but still living the wild existence of our ancestors, has true campfire appeal. Ray Wallace is departed, but his spirit lives on. Over the 65 years since he first pressed those wooden feet into the ground, thousands of people have reported seeing Bigfoot. Even as I write, a video purporting to show Bigfoot ambling along a mountainside in Colorado is making the rounds on social media.